Saturday, December 1, 2012

An Extraordinary Story Brings Music to the Speech Room

 We are in the midst of a storm in Northern California and my students had to brave the weather to make it to the speech room this week. Our classroom doors open to the outside and the sheltered walkways don’t provide protection from a downpour when it comes in horizontally and pelts us from the side. The kids didn’t complain – it was an adventure. They were happy to borrow my umbrella and fight the wind and rain. One group was especially thrilled when the wind caught the underside of my umbrella and turned it inside out. When we got to the speech room, I cranked up the heat, circled our chairs and pulled out a book: The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives, written and illustrated by Joanne Stanbridge.

The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer

It tells the story of composer, Charles Ives, who hears music in almost any sound he encounters, from the click, click, click of an adding machine to the ear-splitting whistle of the ocean liner, Lusitania.

           “He grabs that big sound with both hands and shapes it into a song.”

My students and I had fun with that line. We whistled and hooted into our own hands, then held them to our ears to see if we could really grab sound. We couldn’t. But we all agreed it was a lovely idea.

Next we read,

          “He writes music that is as busy as a city street. There are train whistles in it, and football games and rowdy picnics and cars rushing past.”  

One of my students, Deigo, thought hard on that passage and began to sing, “Ding, ding, pucka, pucka, choo, choo. Ding, ding, pucka, pucka, choo, choo.”

“Do you know what that is?” he asked. Before I could answer he said, “the train.”

It did sound a lot like our local Skunk train, but with a better rhythm and Diego had all the rhythmic moves to go with it. Then he started chanting, “boom, shhh, shhh, shhh, boom, shhh, shhh, shhh. That’s the music a chimney makes when you have a fire.” The other students looked a bit confused, but impressed.

The kids became very attentive when I read about the Lusitania sinking in 1915. They poured over the four, two-page spreads of the tragedy and caught the mood in the words,

          “The news spreads from office to office like fire. It hangs over the city like smoke, and it tastes of war. When it reaches Mr. Ives, his music goes away. An awful loneliness seizes him, and his heart stretches out across the ocean – out into a dreadful silence.”
* * *
           “Mr. Ives listens for the old familiar music of the office, but it has gone away. Even the city streets are hushed.”

And they remain hushed until Ives hears a hurdy-gurdy player spinning out an old hymn, In the Sweet Bye and Bye. One by one, people on the street start singing until it seems as if the whole city is singing.

          “To Mr. Ives, the sound is as beautiful as raindrops falling together to make a river. Up the song flows, into the evening sky, rolling out across the ocean . . . ”

When we read those words, rain was beating our rooftop and wind rattled our windows. It was easy to imagine raindrops falling together to make a river and I couldn’t help but envision a torrent.  But when I asked the students what kind of music the rain seemed to make, one student, who has autism, started singing in a high sweet voice. She sang about her heart, her school and her perfect day. I liked her song and I especially liked her attitude. With a storm raging outside, we still didn’t need more than a warm room, charming company, and a good book to have a perfect day.

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